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Ryerson Journalism Professor April Lindgren Sounds Alarm on Loss of Local Journalism and Rising News Poverty

Access to reliable local news is as essential to the wellbeing of communities as safe drinking water
February 26, 2021

The Local News Research Project, external link is led by Professor April Lindgren, Velma Rogers Research Chair at Ryerson’s School of Journalism. The project’s Local News Map initiative tracks and maps changes to local news ecosystems across Canada, including the closing, launch and merging of local news operations. The map was started in 2016, but its data reach back to 2008, a year marked by a steep downturn in the news media industry. Since then, it has made visible multiple trends, including the loss of local newspapers in smaller communities. 

While bigger provinces like Quebec and Ontario are seeing an overall greater number of closures--because they have the largest media sectors--in lesser cities and towns, one single business closure, or a shift to regionalization (where one outlet serves multiple communities), can lead to a marked decline in local, on-the-ground reporting. 

According to the latest (Feb. 1) figures of the Local News Map, 423 local news outlets across 303 communities have disappeared since 2008. In the 166 communities on the map with 15,000 residents or fewer, a total of 188 media organizations have shuttered; roughly 75% of these communities have not seen anything new open up to fill the gap, even online.

The danger, says Lindgren, is that the trend of net loss of small-market news outlets will lead to  pockets of “local news  poverty” across the country, threatening the wellbeing of communities and the functioning of local democracies.

Lindgren describes local news poverty as “situations where communities don’t have access to the timely, relevant, independently produced, verified news they need to navigate daily life including reporting on health, education, economic, transportation, environmental, and civic and political matters.”

“Without this access,” she says, “people are left to sort out fact from fiction on their own. There is also no shared set of facts on which to base decisions and debate local issues.”  

The COVID-19 pandemic crisis has provided a striking example of a situation in which access to timely, reliable news and reporting can spell the difference between life and death in communities. But a public health emergency is not the only scenario in which local news matters. 

Take for example High Level, Alberta, where the sole local newspaper now only has one freelance reporter. Municipal leaders noted a resulting local news vacuum, external link that was contributing to a lack of collective understanding of civic matters, and a general suspicion of city hall. The solution? The city cancelled its advertising in the paper and reallocated the funds to buy a subscription for every household in town. In exchange, it gets one free page of space per week for important municipal updates. Lindgren says the High Level example speaks to how difficult getting a message out to residents can be for municipal governments even when there is a local news source in the community.

The challenges faced by the news industry have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Just as the pandemic has dealt a blow to all businesses, newsrooms across the country have also felt the impact. In 2020, 48 community newspapers in Canada closed permanently, and 179 news media organizations reported layoffs or job losses; nearly 3,000 editorial and non-editorial workers have lost their jobs since March 2020. “Some might be temporary layoffs, but at this point we know about 1,200 of these jobs have turned into permanent losses,” says Lindgren. 

“Although 2020’s numbers are bad, it’s not the worst year on record for the industry since we’ve been keeping track,” she adds. “Having said that, the worst may not be over yet. It’s not at all clear if or when the local advertising that sustains many news organizations will bounce back.”

A vocal champion of community news, Professor Lindgren works tirelessly to sound the alarm on our nation’s loss of news media outlets and journalism jobs, and to spotlight the risks of media poverty. In her 2020 op-ed, “Local news is being decimated during one of its important moments, external link,” she calls for an urgent collective solution to address the dire state of local journalism, noting that it is an essential part of well-functioning local democracies. 

“Journalism is a public good, and it has become clear that the private sector is unable to on its own provide for that public good. We need now for the public sector to step in and provide support,” she says. “We’re seeing some positive changes, but there is much more to be done.”

Additional Information

Read the report on the PDF filelatest data from the Local News Map, external link, released February 1, 2021, and discover the latest research, external link from the Local News Research Project.

Follow April Lindgren on Twitter (@aprilatryerson, external link) and find news on this issue using hashtag #CDNmedia. 

Register for our free webinar on March 5, 2021, featuring Professor Lindgren on “Mapping Local News Poverty.”